I got back from Japan on Tuesday, after a 12+ hour flight on Virgin Atlantic.
Previously I have flown with KLM and JAL to/from Japan. I couldn’t really recommend KLM, because while the service was okay you can’t go direct from the UK with them, making your trip take 16 hours or more. JAL are by far the best I have ever used. Their in-flight entertainment entertainment isn’t as good as Virgin’s, but somehow the flight itself was a lot more pleasant. Maybe the food was better or they had more fresh air in the cabin.
First thing to be aware of is weight limits. In my experience being a few kilograms over with your luggage is no problem, and they don’t charge you excess baggage. Carry-on is a bit different. Generally they don’t even bother to weigh it if you have just one bag and can lift it. If you have more then one though, they might take notice. JAL didn’t, and most of the time Virgin didn’t either, but this last time they did. Best thing to do is probably to get one of those mini suitcases with wheels. The size limits on carry-on items are never enforced IME.
If you are over the limits, the best thing to do is go to the post office and ship the excess back to yourself. Japan Post is very, very efficient and will treat your package well, but be aware that on the UK end it will be delivered by Royal Mail or Parcelforce. Generally they are not too bad, certainly nothing like the US Postal Service who seem to go out of their way to smash everything up, but it’s still worth packing things with bubble wrap. Delivery can take up to a few weeks by EMS, but my package arrived the day after I did. I must have been lucky.
I have to say that it was a bit annoying that Virgin didn’t just let me take the stuff as carry-on. The plane was half empty and there was plenty of space. JAL were very helpful when I had an oversize poster tube to bring back. Also, I was only 15KG over, which is easily less than the difference between me and the fat guy ahead of me in the queue. They should use a step-on scale and weigh the passenger, luggage and carry-on all at once.
On the flight, the best thing to do is to sleep. That’s easier said than done, but even just sitting there with your eyes closed and only half awake is better then being fully alert and distracted by the in-flight entertainment. Sleep is by far the best way to beat jet-lag.
I would avoid sleeping pills. I tried them but they didn’t make me sleep, just very tired when I got off the aircraft. Alcohol is supposed to be bad too. I tried having a single can of 88kal grapefruit alcoholic drink before the flight once as it does help me sleep some times, but in that case it didn’t seem to make much difference.
Closing your eyes as soon as you sit down and are strapped in is worth a try. The motion of the plane as it takes off and climbs to cruising altitude helps some people sleep. Of course it means missing the safety announcement/video…
Virgin provide a sleeping mask which is well worth using. Ear plugs are not a bad idea either. Even better are noise cancelling or in-ear headphones. Noise cancelling ‘phones tend to be full sized cans, but since you have to sleep sitting up it’s not usually a problem. In-ear monitors (IEMs) don’t suit everyone, but if you can live with them they are obviously even better. I find that listening to an audio book helps me sleep too. Again, somehow JAL make sleeping a lot easier… I find the air on VM flights is very dry. I have heard that a damp cloth places over the nose and mouth can help but have not tried it so far.
I was not feeling too good on the return flight. The cabin staff graciously set up a row of four seats for me to lie down on. If the flight is not heavily booked, you can do this yourself or ask the crew about it. The arm rests usually fold up out of the way.
As for upgrades, I did once pay £75 for an exit seat. Basically that gives you unlimited leg-room, although you cannot stow anything under the seat in front (because there isn’t one) and they are usually high traffic areas due to being next to the toilets and the place people wait in to use them. I’m 182cm (6’) tall and find that my knees are wedged against the seat in front when my seat is reclined, but I’m still not sure if it’s worth going for an exit seat. I have never tried an upgrade to a higher service level (Premium Economy on Virgin).
All said and done, flying long hall is never a particularly enjoyable experience, but you can do a lot to make it more bearable.